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Revelations: The nudge we all need

By Jennifer Lee Preyss
Feb. 18, 2011 at midnight
Updated Feb. 17, 2011 at 8:18 p.m.

Jennifer Preyss

BY JENNIFER PREYSS

In the last six months of high school, I actually contemplated not attending a university. It's odd to think about it now because as a 20-something adult, I crave education, and eventually, hope to earn a master's degree, if not a Ph.D. But senior year was a difficult one for me. I was in the height of my rebellion, and pursuing academia didn't seem as entertaining as cocktail waitressing at a fancy-pants Atlanta night club and partying it up with my girlfriends every night. When someone asked me about the future, I'd say, "I got it figured out, don't worry."

But I didn't really. As many 17-year-olds do, I only looked forward about six months, a year at the most. The logistics of where I'd be living and working in 10 years didn't matter. I couldn't see that far ahead, and I didn't want to.

My parents, exhausted with their exhausting teen, and busy with their own careers, and two other normal children, left it in my hands to enroll myself in college. They, in turn, would foot the bill. Free college, free rent, free meals, free, free, free. And free education or not, I still considered not going. Can you believe that? It's embarrassing to remember how spoiled I was then.

It wasn't that I was without goals; quite the opposite, really. I dreamed of publishing the great novel, writing the Grammy Award-winning song, getting married and becoming a mommy. Those were things I envisioned in the distant future. But for those six months at the end of high school, I didn't have the drive to make any of them happen. And I didn't have anyone to nudge me.

It didn't help matters that I was overwhelmed by the college admissions process. There were too many questions, and I didn't know where to start. All the elements were in place to secure a spot at a Georgia university - decent grades and SAT scores, notable extracurriculars, stellar recommendations - but I had no one to sit down with me and guide me through the process. I was lost, and part of me didn't even want to try.

But down the street from my house was, as I call her, my Jewish second mother, who cleverly figured out how to give me the nudge I so desperately needed. At some point during the year, she noticed I wasn't following through with college, and decided no child of hers (I'm sort of a second daughter to her) would go without a four-year college degree.

While hanging out upstairs one afternoon with her daughter, also my childhood BFF, my Jewish mother walked in with a Georgia Southern University application, looked at me and said, "How about we fill this out?"

I reluctantly took the application and followed her downstairs. As I filled in the information, she stood nearby cooking, waiting for me to ask questions. And I did have many questions.

As it turned out, the process wasn't that difficult, and a sealed college application soon made its way to the mailbox later that week. Then a few weeks later, I decided I may as well apply to Georgia State University.

I received acceptance letters for both schools that spring, and I remember how excited my Jewish mother was when I told her the news. "That's great Jenny. Good for you," she said. Of course, there were many more steps to complete once I selected a college, and my Jewish mother drove me a little crazy those last few months with her subtle reminders to get things done. But, in many ways, she got me into college, and I credit part of my graduation to her. Almost a decade later, I've found myself actively pursuing those writing dreams I had as a teen, and the great novel is currently under way. But I always wonder what my life would look like if she hadn't nudged me.

I thought of her the other day while visiting the Mitchell Guidance Center. The Harlem Ambassadors were guest speakers at the school, passing on encouragement to the students to stay off drugs and pursue education. Many of the players came from impoverished, drug-filled, gang-related beginnings, yet embraced education and basketball to propel their lives forward. After the assembly, I spoke with several of the students about the Ambassadors' speeches. Before giving me a straight answer, about six teenage boys laughed at the players, themselves, me and offered sarcastic responses to my questions. I had to control myself from laughing and cutting up along with them because they were entirely too entertaining. So, as I'm smiling and laughing to myself and continuing my interview, I noticed a sudden shift in their tone after the question "So where do you think you want to go to college?" left my lips.

Their faces went blank, their eyes turned away from me. It was as if I'd asked them to weigh in on the quantum field theory. I'd never received so many confused, "I don't know" responses. What to study, how to apply, where to go, financial aid, were just a few scenarios of the university experience these students had never, ever, given thought to. And that troubled me. Because even though I was expected to go to college and (stupidly) resisted, it occurred to me that some of these kids will have no such expectation placed upon them for the rest of their lives. So, following the assembly, I asked about becoming a Mitchell's Angel's mentor. My hope is I can maybe help nudge one of them in the right direction, just like my Jewish mother nudged me years ago. Anything's possible, and for that reason alone, it's worth a shot.

Jennifer Preyss is a reporter for the Victoria Advocate. You can reach her at 361-580-6535 or jpreyss@vicad.com.

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